A woman and her child died after a tree fell on their house in Wilmington, North Carolina, the first reported fatalities from Hurricane Florence, which made landfall earlier on Friday.
Police confirmed the fatalities on Twitter, saying the father of the child was being transported to a local medical centre to be treated for his injuries.
Authorities later said one person was killed while plugging in a generator, and a man was knocked to the ground while outside and died. Local media also reported that a fifth person, a woman, apparently died from a medical condition after emergency services were unable to get to her due to conditions from the storm.
The reports came just hours after Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane at 7:15am local time (11:30 GMT) at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles east of Wilmington, as the centre of its eye moved onshore, the National Hurricane Center (NHS) said.
By 4:50pm (20:50GMT) on Friday, NHS had downgraded the hurricane to a tropical storm, but Florence’s forward movement had slowed to a crawl, piling on the rain in a siege that could go on all weekend long.
“It’s an uninvited brute who doesn’t want to leave,” said North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Friday. He said parts of his state had seen storm surges as high as 10 feet, adding that the storm was “wreaking havoc” and could wipe out entire communities as it makes its “violent grind across our state for days”.
Florence flattened trees, crumbled roads and knocked out power to three-quarters of a million homes and businesses.
‘Not acting like a normal hurricane’
Forecasters said “catastrophic” freshwater flooding was expected along waterways far from the coast of North and South Carolina.
“A big worry about Hurricane Florence is that it’s not acting like a normal hurricane,” said Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from Wilmington, North Carolina.
“Hurricanes normally come in and they go inland, which sucks the power out of them as they go over the land,” he said. “This one is set to linger right where it is for at least 48 hours.”
|Rescue workers and volunteers rescue a woman and her dog from their flooded home during Hurricane Florence [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP]
Winds bent trees towards the ground and raindrops flew sideways as Florence moved in for an extended stay, with enough of its killer winds swirling overseas to maintain its power.
NHS said the storm’s top sustained winds dropped to 110kph and its centre was about 75km west-southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, and about 45km northeast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
|The Neuse River floods the waterfront in New Bern, North Carolina, on September 14, 2018 during Hurricane Florence [Logan Cyrus/AFP]
Although the storm was downgraded, forecasters said it will continue to threaten North and South Carolina with powerful winds and catastrophic freshwater flooding.
Earlier on Friday, a gust of 169km/h was recorded at Wilmington airport, surpassing the power of Hurricane Fran two decades ago.
|Rescuers search a flooded neighbourhood in Fairfield Habour, North Carolina for evacuees during Hurricane Florence [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP]
The National Hurricane Center also said a gauge north of Wilmington in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, reported 1.92 metres of inundation.
‘Not a lot of time’
Early on Friday, South Carolina emergency officials said there was still time, “but not a lot of time” for people to leave flood-prone areas.
More than 12,000 were in shelters in North Carolina. Another 400 people were in shelters in Virginia, where forecasts were less dire.
Officials said some 1.7 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia were warned to evacuate, but it’s unclear how many did. The homes of about 10 million were under watches or warnings for the hurricane or tropical storm conditions. Coastal towns in the Carolinas were largely empty, and schools and businesses closed as far south as Georgia.
Forecasters said Florence’s surge could cover all but a sliver of the Carolina coast under as much as 3.4 metres of ocean water, and days of downpours could unload more than 0.9 metres of rain, touching off severe flooding.
|Volunteers help rescue three children from their flooded home in James City, North Carolina [Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP]
Once a Category-4 hurricane with winds of 225kph, the hurricane was downgraded to Category 1 on Thursday night.
Forecasters said that given the storm’s size and sluggish track, it could cause epic damage akin to what the Houston area saw during Hurricane Harvey just over a year ago, with floodwaters swamping homes and businesses and washing over industrial waste sites and hog-manure ponds.
Florence was seen as a major test for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was heavily criticised as slow and unprepared last year for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies